Trying to keep the show going on St. Mark’s Place

Lorcan Otway reminiscing with memorabilia of his father, Howard Otway, at Theatre 80.    Photo by Bob Krasner
Lorcan Otway reminiscing with memorabilia of his father, Howard Otway, at Theatre 80. Photos by Bob Krasner

BY BOB KRASNER  |  At 9 years old, Lorcan Otway was side by side with his father and brother, digging dirt from the space that would become his father’s dream — Theatre 80 St. Mark’s.

Formerly a speakeasy where the City Council drank during Prohibition, the space, at 80 St. Mark’s Place, just off of First Ave., has had a few different lives. Prior to its becoming Theatre 80, Frank Sinatra was a singing waiter there, and Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman graced the stage when it became a jazz club. Howard Otway, a Quaker actor, singer, novelist and playwright, bought the place in 1964 and spent a lot of time hauling dirt from that basement with his sons to his property in Westchester.

Lorcan Otway began his career as an usher and moved through stints as concession manager, house manager and even as a stage manager, by his early teens. During one evening’s performance, while the actors onstage were performing in the very successful original production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” he was offstage breaking up a fight between two actors that had carried out into the street.

“That gave me nightmares for years,” Otway remembered. Bob Balaban and Gary Burghoff got their start in that play and Billy Crystal was once an usher there.

“He was a handful — but fun,” Otway recalled.

As actors continued to perform downstairs in the intimate off-Broadway theater (maximum audience capacity of 199), Howard and his wife, Florence, had dinner parties / production meetings in their apartment upstairs as they found projects to pursue outside his establishment.

Lorcan remembers the many meals, which included the likes of Robert DeNiro, Sally Kirkland and Shelley Winters, who had written a play that  was to be produced by Otway. 

“DeNiro was always the first one to get up and help clean up,” Lorcan remembered.

Lorcan Otway playing the traditional Irish harp in his St. Mark’s Place home above Theatre 80. PHOTO BY BOB KRASNER
Lorcan Otway playing the traditional Irish harp in his St. Mark’s Place home above Theatre 80. 

Otway also found other pursuits. He has been a busker — he plays the uilleann pipes and the harp, among others — a maker of Bodhran drums, a photo assistant, a photojournalist, a boat builder and a lawyer.

After he found that he didn’t much care for the lifestyle of a commercial photo studio, he set off for Ireland, where he pursued a career in socially relevant photography, covering the war there. More recently, he also has photographed and written for The Villager, covering everything from Tompkins Square’s red-tail hawks and the late “crusty godfather” L.E.S Jewels to divers working underwater beneath East River Park.

In his absence, the St. Mark’s Place theater became a movie house, showing vintage Hollywood films, but it later returned to presenting live theater. Shortly before his father died, Lorcan promised him that the venue would continue as an off-Broadway house. And he plans to continue doing just that, if the venue’s current financial challenges can be surmounted. 

After the death of his mother, the theater was left to Lorcan and his brother, a theoretical mathematician who has no interest in the enterprise. The triple whammy of an inheritance tax, the need to buy out his brother’s share and the tripling of his property taxes has left this East Village stage’s future in jeopardy.

Lorcan Otway sitting in the theater he helped create when, as a child, he helped dig dirt out of the building's basement for the space.
Lorcan Otway sitting in the theater he helped create when, as a child, he helped dig dirt out of the building’s basement for the space.

For Lorcan and his wife, Genie, Theatre 80 is more than a way to make a living; it is a way for the neighborhood to hang on to its identity. In an age where mom-and-pop stores are rapidly vanishing, this mom-and-pop theater is a treasure that needs to be preserved.

Elena K. Holy, artistic director of the the New York International Fringe Festival, agrees. Her company uses Theatre 80 as one of its venues.

“Since 2012, Theatre 80 has been a generous and welcoming space for some of our largest — and most complicated — shows,” she said. “In an age where venues are disappearing from the East Village and Lower East Side, we cannot imagine what the loss of this historic and gorgeous venue would mean to independent theater in New York City.”

Otway laments that in the last 20 years, at least 12 theaters have disappeared from a five-block radius in the East Village. He has done what he can to revive his space, installing the Museum of the American Gangster upstairs and a small throwback of a neighborhood watering hole, the William Barnacle Tavern — featuring authentic-style absinthe — adjacent to the theater.

He and his wife now live in his parents’ former apartment above the theater. Since taking over operations, he said, the longest that he’s been away from the building is a half a day. 

“It takes tremendous dedication,” he said.

But dedication, unfortunately, is not enough, and so he has set up The Howard Otway and Florence Otway Opportunity Project as a way for supporters to make tax-deductible donations to the theater.

Beyond that, Otway is searching for what he called an “angel” who would be willing to contribute a substantial sum in exchange for naming rights for the building. The theater itself would not be renamed, but the building that houses it, the bar and the gangster museum all would be.

For more information about the Howard Otway and Florence Otway Opportunity Project, see https://www.facebook.com/hofopro . For information on Theatre 80, visit https://theatre80.wordpress.com